Audio Technologies: Hot or Cool?

26Nov20

By Alex Danco

To really understand the impact of audio, we need to go back to basics and understand how audio works as a medium, independent of its content. What does audio have to say? What does it do to us, in plain sight, that’s gone unnoticed? We need to go deep into some Marshall McLuhan territory, and appreciate what he meant by his famous line The Medium Is the Message. 

McLuhan is one of two 20th century figures – the other is Claude Shannon – to truly grasp how and why information technology works. Claude Shannon laid the groundwork for McLuhan by discovering Information Theory, and defining information in a counterintuitive but powerful way: as resolution of uncertainty

Compare these two sentences: “Let’s meet tonight at my house at 7:30” versus “Let’s do tonight, maybe.” Which one contains more information? The first one. It resolves uncertainty to a higher degree, which is why we say it’s “higher resolution”.

If you’re told “Let’s meet tonight at my house at 7:30”, you’ve received a pretty complete, high-resolution dose of information. On the other hand, “Let’s do tonight maybe” is lower-resolution, with some gaps you’ll need to go fill yourself. It could mean yes, it could mean no. Eventually you’ll figure it out, but it requires active work on your part to interpret your friend’s communication style and understand the message correctly.

We live in a world of information, and we often think of information in terms of sensory input coming at us. But that’s not really information. Information isn’t what we’re told; it’s what we understand.

Hot and Cool Media

Now let’s add McLuhan to the picture. McLuhan’s first insight here is that different forms of media create different kinds of spaces and stages for information and understanding, regardless of whatever the content might be. You can arrange them on a spectrum, from high-resolution to low-resolution. McLuhan labeled this spectrum “Hot” to “Cool”. 

Some forms of media and communication inherently transmit information in high definition, where what’s being communicated is right in your face. Uncertainty is resolved immediately and thoroughly. The media yells at you, like a newspaper or an action movie: it doesn’t hold back. There’s no guesswork or participation required on your part. McLuhan calls this “Hot” media. 

Other forms of media and communication transmit information in lower definition. The participants have to do work to integrate several different pieces or senses, including gaps in information that must be filled in or genre conventions that must be followed, in order to complete the picture. A typical telephone conversation is lower resolution media, because a large part of the message being communicated is obscured or unsaid: it isn’t in the words, but in the gaps we must fill in. This is “Cool” media. 

The concept of Hot and Cool media took me a long time to really understand. But when it suddenly clicked, it clicked all at once. I think some people have a hard time figuring it out because McLuhan’s illustrative examples in Understanding Media are from another era. “The Waltz is a Hot dance, because it’s unambiguous mechanical mashing, whereas the Twist is a Cool dance, because you have to integrate information and fill in gaps in real time” was a great example then, but less so now. People also get thrown off by his description of TV as a “cool, tactile medium”. Remember, back then, TV was a glowing fuzz of white dots and muffled audio you had to piece together – a totally different medium than film (hot back then, and now) or TV today (which has heated up a lot since McLuhan’s day). 

So here’s an explanation in terms of media we know today: texting, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.

Texting: ice cold. The entire point of texting, particularly for young people, is that it’s a way to communicate that reveals very little information. Uncertainty and ambiguity is the point. Texting, especially a group chat, is often like a game of “what’s said versus unsaid”, where gaps must be filled in. It demands active participation on your part to complete the picture of what’s being communicated. (The dreaded “…” in iMessage, which says so little but draws us in, is Cool Media.)

Twitter: cool. Twitter is tricky because there are many different ways to use it. Breaking News Twitter, for instance, is fairly hot. But Twitter the social network, the way I use it, is quite cool. It’s a low-resolution, character-limited format where the majority of what’s being communicated is actually just offscreen, out of the picture. The greatest tweets and the funniest jokes on Twitter are incomplete information: they’re pure punchline. The setup goes unsaid; you have to already know it, or go figure it out. It takes a lot of work to use Twitter successfully and you have to fluently understand its genre conventions in order for it to make sense. Twitter, when used optimally, is Cool Media.

Instagram: warm. The main content being communicated is all visual, and you don’t need to understand genre conventions as much. Instagram in its early photo filter days was fairly hot media, as is classic photography, but it cooled down when it became the de facto social status app. Now there’s interplay between what’s posted and how many likes it gets, and from whom, and other social dynamics like private versus public posting. There is still some ambiguity, but as a medium it’s more information-complete than Twitter or texting.

Facebook: hot. Unlike Twitter, which is a muttering mass of inside jokes, or Instagram, which is warmer but still has some cool elements to it, Facebook is more like a newspaper. It’s not holding anything back. It’s a patchwork mosaic of yelling: Acknowledge this! Be angry at this! Celebrate this! There’s not a lot of mystery on Facebook, and it doesn’t take much fluency to use it correctly. The information being communicated is all right there, blasted at you. Facebook may have started out cooler, back when it was college kids navigating social status (as Instagram is used now). But it’s heated up steadily since then.

YouTube: scorching hot. We’re going to talk about YouTube later.

Now, remember: when we say Hot and Cold media, we’re not talking about the content. We’re talking about the medium itself. The Medium Is the Message means is that the choice of media creates a stage for what follows. Hot media creates space for hot communication; cool media creates space for cool communication. Hot media heats things up; cool media cools things down.

Think about the difference between communicating by texting (cool) versus email (hot). Typographically, there’s no difference between the two. But email is understood to be a single-shot method of communication, which is hot and high-resolution, whereas texting is understood to be a dialogue: it’s a cool, chatty medium by nature, where little information is actually exchanged. Communicating by email, regardless of the content, will generally heat things up and force directness. Communicating by text will generally cool things down and invite ambiguity.

Meanwhile, the physical properties of the medium you choose will also influence the temperature of what’s being communicated. A photograph is hotter than a pencil: they both make pictures, but one makes low-resolution sketches and the other high-definition images.

What’s hottest? You might think that the highest-resolution format of all could be visual, typographic or video. But it’s not. It’s audio.
Source: https://tinyurl.com/y6lcfr5f



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